Craig Calhoun explains how we got from Christian debates about indigenous peoples to human rights today.
Christianity in particular has informed concepts like human rights, where to think in terms of human rights you have to think in terms of all human beings having some equivalent claim on justice and on our moral values. Well, this has roots in Christian debates over whether the indigenous peoples of the New World had souls, and some people said, no, no, they’re really less. The winning side in the debate, humanism, was strong on the argument that every human being has a soul, and every human being therefore has rights and has potential.
Now, human rights expanded beyond the original religious context. But it was shaped by that idea of a basic natural commonality and equivalence among human beings. And the idea of having rights itself is one that has a history not only in law, but in religious thinking. And this has been brought forward and also incorporated into the notion of human rights. It’s an important idea that our rights are not limited to what we can go to court over, but sometimes express an ideal that goes beyond that merely legal reality.